NASA cancels overbudget instrument for Europa clipper


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Because its budget had ballooned to three times its original estimate, NASA has decided to cancel a science instrument for its Europa Clipper probe to Jupiter’s moon.

[Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science] said in the memo that, at the time of the February review, ICEMAG’s estimated cost has grown to $45.6 million, $16 million above its original cost trigger and $8.3 million above a revised cost trigger established just a month earlier. That cost was also three times above the original estimate in the ICEMAG proposal. “The level of cost growth on ICEMAG is not acceptable, and NASA considers the investigation to possess significant potential for additional cost growth,” Zurbuchen wrote in the memo. “As a result, I decided to terminate the ICEMAG investigation.”

The contrast between how NASA operates in its unmanned planetary science programs with how the agency operates in its manned programs is striking. The agency’s planetary program is probably its most successful achievement, and has been for decades. Spacecraft almost always get built close to budget, launch on time, and accomplish amazing things when their arrive at their planetary targets, either the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, or Pluto and beyond. Part of the reason for this success is a willingness by NASA to make hard decisions, such as the one above, even if it might ruffle some political feathers. The result is that everyone focuses on getting the job done, on budget and on time. They know that if they screw up, as the ICEMAG team did here, they might find themselves on the chopping block.

In contrast, as I noted in my previous post, NASA allows things to get out of control in its manned program. In fact, they might consider this a feature of the system, not a bug. The goal is not to accomplish anything, but to funnel cash to the states and districts of elected officials. The result is that nothing ever flies, or if it does, it does so very late, very over budget, and often with technical difficulties. Worse, the focus on pleasing corrupt lawmakers like Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) means that NASA is often hostile to the success in manned space by others, such as SpaceX.

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2 comments

  • Richard M

    In the main, I agree, Bob. But in fairness, this might – might – play out differently if John Culberson were still chairman of the House space subcommittee. He might just go get them the extra money. He has before.

    But he’s out of Congress in 2019. Zurbuchen understands the playing field he’s on now. Europa Clipper is too far along to cancel now, but he has to keep it on schedule without the help of his Congressional Fairy Godfather.

    One wishes there had been a similar willingness to avoid tech creep on the JWST.

  • Edward

    Richard M,
    I beg to differ a bit. I worked on some space instruments for NASA. While working on one of them, we saw a photograph in a trade magazine that showed the mass model of our instrument that had been used during the preliminary structural shake test of the satellite. Knowing that a mass model existed that would fly, if we did not deliver on time or close to budget (financial, mass, and power budgets), was quite a motivator to quickly solve the problems that kept cropping up.

    Europa Clipper being too far along to cancel sounds to me like the sunk cost fallacy. This is how we ended up with JWST costing so much.

    I agree that JWST has turned into an expensive undertaking, but its long pole problems (that hold up the show) are more with the overall spacecraft rather than individual instruments.

    I also agree with Foxbat’s sentiment in the previous post that Robert mentioned. There is a lot of astronomy and planetary science that is not being performed because JWST is costing so much more than it should.

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